ASHLAND Kylie Gayheart leads Knott County Central in scoring at 17.6 points a game and hits 42.1% of her 3-point attempts.
It’s a good bet that the junior will have Jaidyn Gulley standing in her way when the Patriots face Ashland in the opening round of the Sweet Sixteen at Rupp Arena today at 11 a.m.
First-year Kittens coach Stacy Davis said Gulley’s mindset has evolved over the course of the season into a confident defensive stopper.
She gladly accepted the challenge of guarding a trio of the state’s best players on Ashland’s road to its first region championship since 2015.
“Jaidyn had to guard (Rowan County’s) Haven Ford, (Russell’s) Shaelyn Steele and (Boyd County’s) Audrey Biggs, all considered top players in the state in their class,” Davis said. “She stepped up huge. Last season, she said I can’t do it. Let someone else do it. Now, she wants that challenge. No matter who we play at State or what player we put her on, she accepts her job. She’s ready.”
A bigger college floor means the offensive player has more room to maneuver. Gulley’s quickness and athletic ability has aided her composure and confidence on the court.
“I like the challenge,” Gulley said. “I like to think I’m the best defensive player on the floor. Then I go out there and do my best.
“We had more scorers last year, so I was more of a defensive player. I feel like that’s my role again this year. I love to play defense.”
On the other end of the floor, the Kittens’ offense is clicking on all cylinders. Davis instituted a run-and-gun style to the Ashland game plan upon her arrival. The team has scored 500 more points this season than it did a year ago.
The former Ashland guard felt she had the right roster in place to quicken the pace.
“It’s always been my style,” Davis said. “It was our style when I played here. I’ve watched these girls play for a couple years. With the personnel we have, I thought my philosophy fits perfectly with what we had coming back.”
Davis believes she has the right conductor in place to lead the up-tempo offensive attack. Sophomore Kenleigh Woods doesn’t want to settle for the jump shot. She wants to beat the defense down the floor and attack the rim.
“I’d like to think I’m a quick person,” Woods said. “We like to get up and down the floor. My team is really fast. We want to push the ball. Our defense leads to our offense.”
“Coach (Bill) Bradley started to push the ball more at the end of last year,” she added. “Coach Davis has pushed that this season. We are quick and will use it to our advantage.”
Woods has also increased her scoring average in the process. She averages 18.6 points a game. Davis, who is the program’s second-leading scorer, see plenty of similarities between her and her point guard.
“She reminds me of me so much,” Davis said. “We’re not real tall. Our speed and our IQ on the court helps us a lot. To be able to get to the basket with that size and still be able to score, it’s amazing. It’s her ability to push the ball down the floor and speed up the tempo. It’s been huge for us.”
Woods took on a larger role on the team this year. She still acknowledges that she has plenty of time to grow her game.
“There are things that I struggle with,” Woods said, “but I also know I’m just a sophomore. On our team, there’s not just one leader. We want to play as one team and win as a team. We want to do everything together.
“We are a younger team this year. Last year, we had a lot of great role models to play with. This season, I want to help our younger players and tell them they have the green light to shoot it.”
Ella Sellars posts a 16.8 scoring average. Gulley has increased her offensive numbers this season, averaging 11.4 points a contest.
Woods, Sellars and Gulley were named to the 16th Region All-Tournament team. Sellars earned Most Valuable Player honors.
“Those two can score, but they also look for other people to score,” Gulley said of teammates, Woods and Sellars. “They can see other options and look to kick the ball out to assist their teammates. It’s what I really like about them.”
“My confidence level is a lot better than it was last year,” she added. “We had multiple scorers last year and I didn’t feel like I needed to score that much. This year, I had to step up my game in that area. I want to score and do what I can for my team.”
Ashland (25-7) had to navigate the same region tournament trip it did in 2022. Davis could see that confidence level elevate through the whole roster and it helped produce a different outcome.
“It’s the confidence that we had on the floor,” Davis said. “Last year when I watched him play, Kenleigh went down with an injury early and when you take your point guard out of the lineup, it all changes. They kind of tightened up a bit. They have so much confidence and experience. They have this mindset that no one is going to beat them. They finished it.”
Woods injured her shoulder in last year’s semifinals and couldn’t compete at 100% in the finals. The Kittens are healthy again and ready to make another run in Lexington.
“Jaidyn stepped up and did an amazing job at point guard last year (in the region tournament),” Woods said. “We really wanted it this year. We knew what we had to do. We had to go out there and give it our all.”
“I’m really proud of my team,” Gulley added. “It’s the first time we have been region champions in a quite a while. I am very happy and glad we got experience the region championship together. and now we’re going to State this year.”
Davis joins her team in experiencing a state tournament at Rupp Arena for the first time. She has valuable knowledge of the atmosphere that Ashland will face today after she played in two state tournaments for the Kittens in 1990 and 1992.
The two venues for her State games were Bowling Green and Richmond. Davis led her team in scoring with 21 points against Henry Clay in the 1992 opening round.
“Sometimes I’m still in awe of all this,” Davis said. “It’s happened so quick. Coming from the seventh-grade boys team and playing at State, it still doesn’t compare to anything here. I know how it felt when we won, and we went to State. I wanted it for these girls too. I’m glad that we’ve had that same experience.”
The Kittens were scheduled to arrive in Lexington last night. Davis said the team will take in Wednesday’s evening-session games so they can get a feel for their future surroundings at Rupp Arena.
Woods feels that the team is ready for the new atmosphere.
“To go out there and play at Rupp Arena, it’s just an honor,” Woods said. “It’s one of my dreams and I get to share it with my teammates and my coaches. We are like family. We’re going out there and have fun.”
Leading her alma mater back to the state tournament has been monumental for Davis. She admitted that sharing the current ride with her team rivals her trip as a player.
“Everything’s been so hectic after playing on Sunday and not having that day off to let it process,” Davis said. “My boys are playing in the state tournament as well. It’s really the best feeling to see the smiles on the girls’ faces. To come back and represent the maroon and white and take this team to the state tournament, it’s amazing. This one feels better than (the region titles) that I experienced as a player. We’ve always said that basketball doesn’t define you as a young lady. It’s what you do off the court. But to see the excitement and the tears, it’s made it all worth it.”
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